From a serious write-up in the pages of the New York Times, to more lighthearted Buzzfeed quizzes and endless roundups of must-have products for “treating yourself,” you’ve likely noticed all of the column inches spent on the concept of self-care recently. The isolation, stress and burnout brought on by the pandemic put this practice front and center — especially now as the one-year mark approaches and most of us are scrapping the very bottom of our depleted reserves.
Self-care is a topic that we’ve danced around for awhile here on The Review. (Readers might remember the advice we shared on the adjacent subjects of emotional fitness, weathering a crisis and personal development last year.) We’ve had our editorial eyes on a detailed guide to self-care for many months now, but truth be told, we’ve struggled to find a fresh angle that would add value and dive deeper. While the meteoric rise of self-care has advanced discussions around mental health and wellness, the conversation often stays in shallow waters and recirculates commonly-heard tips. Luckily, we got connected with an expert who immediately grabbed our attention.
“It always makes me cringe how the same information is regurgitated. When I read articles on self-care, it’s the same advice — practice yoga, drink green tea, try this latest exercise,” says Jessmina Archbold, a licensed psychotherapist, wellness coach and mental health advocate who is publicly known as Minaa B.
“By recycling the same advice, many people don’t recognize that they're creating a box and saying, ‘This is what self-care looks like.’ And that plays a role in why some people feel stuck — they think, ‘Well, I don't like these things,’ or ‘This doesn’t really seem to be helping my anxiety,’” she says. “It made me think, ‘Who's writing these articles and why is it coming from a wealthy, white-centered place?’ So I started pushing out my own experiences and sharing what I do to take care of myself, while also talking about race and incorporating frameworks from therapy.”
That attempt to open up and change the narrative struck a chord. In addition to her private practice where she specializes in treating trauma, depression, and anxiety, Archbold has cultivated a thriving Instagram community with over 100K followers, where she shares helpful explainers on mental health topics. As something of a Renaissance woman, she's also penned a book of essays and poems, puts together prints of handwritten affirmations, and leads workshops at companies like Slack, on topics including building resistance to racism and sustaining work-life balance.
As we steel ourselves for yet another year of times without precedent, Archbold’s perspective serves up both the motivating pep talk and the practical advice we all need to hear, which is why we were grateful for the chance to sit down with her recently.
In this exclusive interview, Archbold challenges us to reexamine the buzzy, yet vague term of self-care and imbue it with deeper meaning. In addition to busting myths, she shares her framework for thoroughly assessing your needs and taking inventory of the tools available to you. To probe more deeply beyond commonly cited tactics, Archbold makes the case for why boundary work is at the heart of self-care, sharing archetypes for recognizing common patterns and advice on drawing lines — both with others and yourself.
DIMENSIONS AND TIERS — HOW TO TAKE ON THE DEEPER WORK AND REFRAME THE “WHAT IS SELF-CARE?” QUESTION
Setting aside the hackneyed nature of most self-care advice, Archbold points to another problem spot. “In my therapy practice, my clients are often surprised whenever I talk about self-care as a mental health practice or assign them homework. They come with different expectations — self-care is seen as what you can buy yourself, not how you can work on yourself. ‘Treat yourself’ is a catchy phrase, and whenever there’s a trend, there will be a price tag. Now self-care ideas are about booking the spa package, buying the expensive candle or adding that face mask to your cart on Amazon,” she says.
“It’s a huge misconception. Now, are we entitled to buy ourselves things we like? Of course, but if we frame it as though self-care practices start and stop with spending money on material things, we're getting it all wrong. Self-care is deeper work — there’s a difference between engaging in self-soothing relief from a discomforting emotion, versus tackling the hard work to take care of yourself on a deeper level.”
Sometimes self-care might look like taking a bath. And sometimes self-care might look like speaking up, erecting boundaries, being assertive and holding yourself accountable.
“We need to reframe what it means to take care of ourselves, because doing deep breathing, reading a book, listening to a podcast, and going for a walk are all forms of self-care,” says Archbold. “Otherwise, self-care doesn’t feel accessible for those without certain levels of finances. If I have one message, it’s this — everyone has access to self-care. It's not just about what you spend your money on, it's also about how you invest your time, your effort and your energy into meaningful work.”
Dive deeper by diagnosing where you’re depleted.
Part of this more profound work starts by understanding that self-care requires a multi-faceted approach. As a primer for those just dipping their toes into those deeper waters, Archbold makes this amorphous concept more tangible by breaking self-care down into five different dimensions, with sample symptoms and solutions. “Many people struggle to figure out where to start with self-care. Assessing against those five dimensions is a great first step,” she says.
Physical: “This is all about physical wellness and taking care of your body for your overall health. If I’m struggling with fatigue, I may need a better nighttime routine. If I’m feeling sluggish, maybe I need to check in with my nutrition and eat more veggies. With back pain, maybe I’m not carving out the time to move my body around enough,” says Archbold. “Reminding ourselves not to sit for long stretches, or to release endorphins through stretching and physical activity is an example remedy.”
Social: “This is all about community building. When was the last time you were in community with someone? When did you last reach out to a friend? Have you been sitting alone in silence for the last month or two of the pandemic? Do you find that you’re feeling very disconnected from others? That can be a sign that the social self-care area needs to be filled,” says Archbold.
Emotional: “When our stress levels are rising and it feels like our mental health is suffering, these are cues to practice emotional self-care. Consider doing a mental health check-in before work, during work and after. Use grounding techniques such as deep breathing, running your hands under cold water during high stress moments,” says Archbold. “Here, the ability to disconnect is key. Practice differentiating between an urgent matter, and a matter that can wait.”
Spiritual: “Meditation and prayer are obvious self-care practices here. But there are so many ways to practice spiritual self-care, whether it’s body mapping, journaling to release thoughts, repeating affirmations, connecting with nature by gardening or going on a walk, or getting lost in music.”
Intellectual: “This one is the most overlooked in my experience. Taking time to invest in your work through education and personal development is often on the backburner. Whether it’s reading that’s unrelated to your job, picking up a workbook, or cutting back on TV and replacing it with something that invests in your skills, there are many ways to spend more time here.”
Detangling where you’re most depleted requires regularly tuning into each dimension. “All of these dimensions are interconnected, of course. But too often we don’t take the time to assess them separately, which can make our remedies ineffective,” says Archbold. “If your body is feeling tight or you’re stressed, working out is a great option. But if you're feeling depletion more on that social level, doing a workout video by yourself isn't going to help.”
When we get more specific, that's when we really unlock the magic of self-care.
Take inventory of your self-care toolset.
With that baseline understanding in place, Archbold nudges her clients to take the next step to break self-care strategies down even further. “Pinpointing how you’re feeling isn’t enough — next you need to follow through by assessing how you can better cope, and the tools you need to utilize to take care of yourself within those five dimensions,” she says.
This is where constraints creep in. “For your emotional wellbeing, you might find that you need to go to therapy, but you don't have the finances at the moment, so you just put it off, instead of looking for accessible alternatives or making a self-care plan to get there,” says Archbold.
“But if we better understand the spectrum of resources available and do the prioritization work, we can take longer strides. That’s why whether in workshops or in 1:1 coaching, I like to guide folks through a self-care inventory,” she says. Essentially, Archbold has created a tier system similar to a membership with different levels. “The higher the level, the bigger investment you need to make,” she says. “It helps you break down a problem, figure out where to start and pinpoint what you need.”
Here’s an overview:
Tier 1: Immediately accessible. “This is what’s most accessible in the short-term. When you’re feeling stressed, imbalanced or burnt out, there are some immediate mindfulness go-tos that you can utilize. Examples include using grounding exercises, engaging all five senses with the 5-4-3-2-1 method, deep breathing — anything you can literally do on the spot. You can download Calm or Headspace, you can take a warm bath or prepare a balanced meal. You can use one day of PTO,” says Archbold.
Tier 2: Financial investments. “Level two requires more from us than that instant turnaround,” she says. “Going to therapy or working with a life coach is going to cost money. Whether you’re consulting a nutritionist, getting acupuncture, taking a vacation or just staying on top of your routine healthcare visits, these are all self-care activities that require an investment of your financial resources.”
Tier 3: Time and energy. “Tier 3 is all about doing that very intentional work like problem solving, reading books, attending a workshop — anything that actually requires time and isn't instantly accessible. Maybe you’re finally eliminating or confronting the stressors by reducing your social media time or terminating an unhealthy friendship.”
With this framework as our guide, Archbold walks us through an example. “Starting off with Tier 1, if I feel dysregulated, I can do some deep breathing in the moment. But I notice a pattern of often feeling this way, so I take on the Tier 2 work of booking a session with a therapist, which requires planning and saving that money. When I go to therapy, my therapist gives me homework — now I’m in Tier 3, where I need to carve out time and space within my day to sit with these practices that I'm learning," she says.
In other words, this work can be overwhelming, but by breaking it down, it becomes both more manageable and more concrete. “Even if you’re just opening up a savings account and starting to set money aside for a Tier 2 tool, you’re making progress. And in the meantime, you can take on some Tier 3 work, like reading a book on boundaries before bed, or watching a TED talk on dealing with trauma for an hour,” she says. “Or maybe you notice that you’ve really only been taking on Tier 1 work lately, and there’s room to step it up and invest more of your energy into yourself.”
Outside of figuring out how to get the ball rolling, folks tend to run into another problem — copying someone else’s playbook. “Self-care is subjective. You have to find what works for you,” says Archbold. “Are there free yoga classes? Yes. But does everyone like doing yoga? No. Don’t force it.”
Taking a more expansive view of what counts as self-care is also helpful here as you assemble your own toolkit. “People are often surprised to learn what practicing mindfulness looks like. It’s most associated with engaging your breath or meditation exercises, but it can also be rooted in an activity or hobby. Once the pandemic started, I got back into baking, which I now see as an act of mindfulness,” she says.
“When you have something in front of you, like a list of ingredients, you don't really have time to think about ‘Who am I going to call tonight?’ or ‘I need to get ahead on my inbox’ — otherwise your three-layer cake won’t turn out very well. When I’m baking, I can’t multitask. I’m engaging all five of my senses and focusing on what’s happening in this moment.”
People often think mindfulness means taking a deep breath, mediating, and then moving on. Mindfulness is learning to be rooted in the present by engaging in a specific task.
THE CASE FOR PUTTING BOUNDARIES AT THE CENTER OF SELF-CARE
To continue pulling on this thread of expanding self-care, Archbold underlines one topic that’s been particularly top of mind for her lately. “As a therapist, I’ve always talked about boundaries, but I started talking about it much more when the pandemic started. I was seeing a lot of posts and messages saying, ‘Well, everyone's home now. So there's no reason why your friend shouldn't be answering their phone,’ or ‘There's no reason why someone's not available to do this task at work.’ I was really struck by this,” she says. “Here we are in the middle of a traumatic event and people are so entitled to your energy and time that they have the audacity to say what you are and aren’t allowed to do because you're stuck at home.”
But how does boundary work trace back to self-care? “For starters, boundaries fit into all of those five dimensions. A physical boundary could look like not wanting to shake hands during the pandemic, or not wanting to give someone a hug,” she says. “A social boundary could be limiting who you want to socialize with.”
Setting up boundaries is self-care work. Full stop.
Here, Archbold gets into the details of how boundaries boost self-care:
“When we lack boundaries, we take on things we don’t have capacity for,” says Archbold. “We get or stay trapped in draining relationships and difficult situations. That brings on anger, burnout, stress, and fatigue — leaving us feeling depleted, which can impact everything from our output at work to our finances to our physical health.”
“Boundaries allow us to recognize how enmeshed we are to others or to our work. They’re a set of limits to determine the amount of access that you allow someone or something to have in your life. They teach others how they’re allowed to treat you, and determine how you will respond when these limits are crossed,” she says. “Allowing work to take over your life, or continuing a relationship that consistently brings you negative energy isn’t taking care of yourself.”
“Healthy boundaries give us the ability to understand what we are and are not responsible for. By drawing that line in the sand, we recognize, ‘This is for you and this is for me. I am able to take better care of myself and others by knowing what is mine to carry and what is not,’” says Archbold.
“Additionally, our own boundaries allow us to give others the ability to sit with what is theirs. We often carry our own emotional discomfort and someone else’s discomfort. If I say no to you, I often feel like I have to do the emotional labor to make you feel good about it, which is an added weight. When we feel responsible for causing the discomfort, we often carry the burden of fixing their feelings and abandon our own.”
I can't do the job of carrying a boundary, erecting that boundary, and then making you feel good about why I have to put that boundary in place. Because now I have to be the savior in this whole situation, while you sit back and you do no work at all.
Take back power in the face of trauma.
“I spent a lot of time talking about this in workshops in 2020. I’ve always seen self-care as a way to take power back in the face of racial trauma. On one level, racism is obviously depleting. Black Americans have to deal with physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms, and face everything from racial battle fatigue and internalized oppression to code switching. Diving deeper into the intellectual dimension of self-care and investing in ourselves is critical — it enables us to build resilience and self-esteem so that we can push back against racism when it comes our way,” says Archbold.
“But it’s also about boundaries. Boundaries allow us to recognize what we do and don’t have control over. None of us have the power to change other people. As much as I would like to make someone stop being ignorant, that’s a journey that they have to go on,” she says. “But I do have power in how I respond. I can walk in my power by taking care of myself, protecting my peace and erecting boundaries, whether that’s avoiding triggering social media or news, or moving on from a job because of a toxic work environment.”
Self-care is about consistently pouring back into myself. Boundaries enable us to do that work — they help us recognize that the only thing that we have control over is how we consistently choose to invest in ourselves.
FIND YOUR TYPE AND DRAW YOUR LINES — TOOLS FOR CONSTRUCTING BOUNDARIES
With this understanding of boundaries as a backdrop, Archbold gets down to the nitty-gritty tactics of how to evaluate your current relationship to boundaries, and how to get better at drawing those lines in your own life.
Pattern match by studying these archetypes and taking this “quiz.”
Start by recognizing your own patterns. “There are four different boundary issue types and each of them approach boundaries in the workplace differently,” says Archbold. Here, she provides an overview of each type and the telltale signs:
The compliant. “This person says yes to everything. They already know that their cup is full, but when someone comes up to them with a new task, they just say yes, without speaking up for themselves or pointing to their already long list of responsibilities,” says Archbold. “This comes from a fear of disappointing others, worries about rejection or abandonment, or concern about missing out on an opportunity. They feel obligated and embedded to others and their needs.”
The avoidant. “This person often says no to the good. Their boss checks in with them and says, ‘I see you have a lot going on. How can I help? Can I get you an intern?’ And the avoidant says no. Maybe there’s shame around asking for help or a discomfort with vulnerability. There’s also a tendency to project your own ideologies. Meaning, if you feel like a burden, you believe others think that, too,” says Archbold. “These are boundary issues because when you're recognizing your limits, you need to make sure that they're healthy limits.”
The controller. “This is the person who wants to control everything and can veer into manipulation. They don't really want to respond to or respect someone else’s boundary, which leads them to be dismissive. They often place blame on others for their setbacks, and are unable to take ownership.”
The non-responsive. “This is the narcissist. They could care less about your ‘No.’ They may have the means to help you, but they’d rather take control by not responding. They completely ignore the needs of others, and are in fact judgmental of other people's needs. They tend to be self-absorbed, and make excuses for their unsupportive behaviors,” says Archbold.
It may be the case that none of these types feel like the right fit. “It sometimes requires a level of practice to recognize what category you fall in. Or even if you do see yourself as the compliant who says yes to everything, you maybe haven’t done the deeper-rooted work of figuring out why,’” says Archbold.
Use emotions as your diagnostic. “With a cognitive behavioral therapy lens, we’re able to see how our thoughts and feelings are linked, and therefore, impact our behaviors. Assess the emotion that comes up for you with boundaries, whether it’s ego, weakness, or guilt,” she says.
We tend to judge our feelings instead of investigating what caused them.
“First ask, how does this habit make me feel? When I know the answer is no, but I go ahead and say yes because I’m compliant, what was I feeling in the moment that made me say yes?” says Archbold. “Second, how can I reframe that feeling? If I’m worried about accepting help and being a burden, I need to remind myself that I can’t assume to know what people will think of me, but I can ask for what I need and give them the opportunity to express their boundaries.”
Of course, the last two types are hard to identify with. “No one ever wants to admit that they are the problem, but when you notice there’s always a common denominator in your relationships and it’s you, there’s power in cultivating self-awareness,” says Archbold. “If someone comes to me with their boundary and I ignore them, was it because I was feeling hurt? Was my ego bruised? Did I feel rejected?”
To further introspect, lean on these additional reflective questions:
What patterns when it comes to the four types of boundaries do I often exhibit?
In what ways have I failed to erect boundaries when I needed them in relationships? Which pattern did this fall under?
In what ways have I failed to erect boundaries when I needed them regarding work? Which pattern did this fall under?
What is the scariest thing that I think will happen if I protect myself, my space, and my mental well-being by implementing boundaries?
Draw new lines in the sand with this advice.
When the topic of boundaries comes up, Archbold is invariably asked about how to set boundaries and where exactly to place them. The possibilities of overdrawing and coming up short present problems at both ends of the spectrum. It’s more art than science, of course, especially when it comes to personal boundaries.
Even so, Archbold has found this set of tips steers her clients well as they consider how to lay down boundaries, both with themselves and with others. Read on for helpful tactics and clear examples as you look to erect new lines in your personal and professional life in the name of self-care.
Boundaries with others:
We’ve all encountered a co-worker, acquaintance, or even loved ones like this — every time you engage with them, you feel that twinge of annoyance. “Assess the negative emotion that is consistently coming to the surface. Maybe you feel drained by each interaction. Or you notice a sense of resentment in conversation with them,” says Archbold.
That’s a red flag to pay attention to. “Resentment creeps in when we neglect our own needs and desires to put someone else first. You’ll have a hard time sustaining healthy relationships with that dynamic. Common examples include repeatedly loaning someone money when you didn’t want to, or letting someone in after they show up at your house unannounced. If you’re on edge, feeling disconnected or struggling with the one-sided dynamic of the relationship, that’s a good place to draw a boundary.”
Other scenarios are more likely to be overlooked. “We often enable people to emotionally dump on us without realizing it. You have friends, co-workers or family members who call you just to complain. They don't have anything good to say, or they come to you with the same scenario over and over again. When you try to offer a solution, they pushback,” she says. “Consider creating a boundary by saying, ‘I can't continue to talk about X subject with you because it leaves me feeling Y way. What are you looking for when you come to me with this information? Maybe I'm not the right person, maybe a mentor or a therapist might have the tools to help.’”
Another one that’s oft-crossed, yet under-discussed is physical boundaries. “Norms around touch vary from culture to culture. And from childhood, many of us learned that if you see someone crying, or your aunt comes over to your house, you have to go give them a hug. But we have a right to our personal space.”
Propping up boundaries at work can prove even more challenging — especially in our current remote world, where the division between work and life is paper thin. “We show up to do a specific job, but when we feel overwhelmed, we start to assume that we have to take what is being given to us, that we can't speak up for ourselves,” says Archbold.
“Part of it, of course, is examining your own role. If you’re taking on tasks outside of your job description that leave you too stressed to do your actual work, then you're prioritizing things that you shouldn't be. If you're continuously responding late at night to emails, you're teaching others that there's no cut off time,” she says.
No matter how lenient you’ve been in the past, no matter what precedent you’ve set, it's never too late to set a boundary.
“When folks don’t respect your deadlines or repeatedly ignore requests you’ve made, that’s an area to consider drawing new lines and start introducing consequences,” Archbold continues. Take this example: Someone is running late with a project, you give them an extension, and then they blow past that too. “You can say, ‘I gave you those three weeks that you asked for. Now, the boundary is going to be, I need this project done by X date, or I’ll have to take Y action.’ We can be lenient with people, but if we notice that people are being abusive with our leniency, that calls for a concrete limit.”
At both work and at home, drawing boundaries with others is often an uncomfortable business. To overcome that unease, Archbold suggests flipping your perspective. “Boundaries are an act of generosity. The more you say yes to someone, the more you are taking away their ability to have agency over their life and their choices,” she says.
“When I’m honest about what I can hold and what I can’t, that gives others the power they need to make a choice or work through that emotion. Remind yourself: You don’t always have the resources that they’re looking for, and you’re not the one to go find them. You can't be everything to everyone.”
Consistently saying, “Yes” when we should be saying, “No” not only impacts us by causing stress and burnout — it also enables the destructive behaviors that keep people coming back to us.
Boundaries with ourselves:
While it’s easy to think of boundaries as walls we put up to keep others out, Archbold notes that it’s equally imperative to draw and respect boundaries with yourself. “Holding yourself accountable is essential. As you take on the work of managing your own well-being, stop to reflect on how you can take responsibility for being an active participant in the stress and burnout that you feel,” she says.
“Think of it as an opportunity to shift your habits, mindset and behaviors to develop a better self-care routine. That could mean staying within your financial means, getting more hours of sleep, leaving work at work, processing and tending to your emotions — instead of putting that job on others — or setting limits on social media,” she says.
Let’s normalize having boundaries with ourselves as much as we spend time erecting boundaries with other people.
Her first tip? Remind yourself that saying yes to something is saying no to something else. It’s a painfully obvious truth — but one that’s often neglected. “When you feel like you’re falling into this pattern of stretching yourself thin, resist the urge to respond to everything immediately. There’s power in giving yourself permission to pause and reflect instead of feeling like your labor or your assistance always has to happen on demand,” she suggests.
“Tactically, this can sound like: ‘Can you give me some time to get back to you regarding your request? I’d like to think about this a little more, I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.’ Too often, we hastily say yes to supporting a person, without assessing if we have the capacity to be committed to the task being asked of us.”
Sometimes boundary work looks a lot like accountability work. We have to learn how to take responsibility for our actions. For doing the things no one asked us to do. For doing the things we didn’t want to do, but still said yes to. For doing the things that weren’t our responsibility.
Boundaries as a manager:
It’s one thing to enact your own limits; it’s another to respond to those of others. “Spend time reflecting on ways in which you can learn to honor the boundaries of others, just as much as you focus on building the strength to erect them for yourself,” says Archbold.
Here’s an example of what she means. “I like to run mental health check-ins at my workshops, asking these questions: ‘On a scale of one to 10, one being the lowest, 10 being the best, how are you feeling today? Who can you ask for help? What do you need to feel supported?’ I have folks ask it of themselves first, and then ask them to pose the same questions to another person,” she says.
“It might be surprising, but this can be a boundary issue. The key is to listen and create space, not to jump in with advice and try to solve their problem — which is a skill managers need to work on as well. In your 1:1s as a manager, you probably open up by asking your direct report how they’re doing. If their ‘number’ is low, or their response seems muted, ask, ‘Can I support you?’ before diving into solution mode. That gives them the agency and the space to ask for what they need, without getting too probing or positioning yourself as the savior.”
Most folks aren't honest with their feelings because they get unsolicited advice or intrusive questions — you can try to stop that cycle on your team with the culture you create and the micro-actions you take.
This is crucial to remember, especially these days. “Mental health and self-care used to be topics that were entirely left out of the office, but more and more we're seeing them be explicitly discussed in the workforce. Managers aren’t necessarily equipped to have these conversations,” says Archbold.
“We all know of course, but it’s worth restating so it stays top-of-mind: We're having this collective experience that's taxing our mental and emotional health. For those of us working from home, everyone is home — the kids, the pets, the roommates, the partners. There’s all this pressure on employees to keep up performance in a vastly different setting and in a pretty traumatic time. As leaders, and as humans, frankly, we have to get comfortable with discussing the uncomfortable — and creating the space others need to take care of themselves.”
Cover image by Getty Images / Alicia Llop. Photos courtesy of Minaa B (credit to Bre Johnson).